Laurie Ochoa: Building Reader Loyalty Through Special Issues

Editor’s Note: This is the 38th and final in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

Many weekly publications do a “Best Of” list, but L.A. Weekly takes it to the next step. For the “Best of L.A.” issue, the amount of front material is tripled; a call is put out months in advance to writers, artists, and photographers; and the binding is magazine-quality, giving it the feel of a book.

Editor in Chief Laurie Ochoa first started at L.A. Weekly as an intern. From there she went on to work at the Los Angeles Times and Gourmet magazine, before coming back to LA Weekly in 2001. Since then, she has concentrated on using special issues like the “Best of L.A.” to build reader loyalty and to produce one of the country’s most innovative alt-weeklies. Special Section was one of four first-place AltWeekly Awards that L.A. Weekly took home in 2005 — more than any other paper.

How did your staff come up with the theme of the Seven Deadly Sins?

Every year we try to tackle the “Best Of” issue differently; some years we do a classic “Best Of,” with best hamburger, best dog parks. People like those, but we find that you can start writing about the same place over and over again — so we make the issue also be about living in the city and finding the secrets about surviving here and having fun here.

The year before, we had organized the issue by the different senses — L.A. by smell, by taste. This year, one of our editors suggested the concept of seven deadly sins; we talked about it and had fun thinking of what would go into anger, sloth, that sort of thing. Then we gave different editors different sins: one got anger, one got lust, our news editor took on pride.

What did you like most about the issue?

I just liked the way people approached the different sins. In gluttony, for example, it wasn’t all just restaurant reviews — one writer looked at the best of bananas and another writer talked about urban foraging. Everyone has a different idea of what’s sinful to them and what feels like an indulgence. I liked Judith Lewis’ take on sloth being the day of hooky – not lying around watching TV, but sneaking off and doing things more fun than going to work. I like how everything doesn’t sound the same, the individual writers’ voices stand out, and you don’t feel like you’re reading the same copy over and over again.

How do you get everyone to work together to produce such a large and involved issue?

We have a lot of meetings, there’s a lot of talking to each other. All the editors get involved in it; they assign pieces and then some of us have a kind of coordinating role. Then we try to get everyone else involved — the different editors coordinate the writers. We have interns that come in from different colleges, and we try to reach out to them. We get everyone on staff to brainstorm — we invite copy editors, arts designers, local freelancers, and try to open it up.

How much work are we talking about?

It takes several months, because it’s bigger than our usual issue. Most of our issues are 50 pages, but that includes 30 pages of listings. In this one we have over 60 pages just of the up-front stuff, and then the calendar also.

Does the staff see the “Best Of” issue as particularly onerous work?

Well, everyone always has good ideas, something that they would be writing or working on for that issue anyway, so we just have them thinking further in advance. And there’s so much copy that if we went into a regular production cycle, it would be impossible to go through it all. So we ask that a lot of the copy come in a lot earlier so that we can start getting the issue ready and the art department can start thinking about it.

But because we have to wait to see how the ads will run, and all those other things, that week is still pretty packed. We usually have people work though the weekend; the publisher buys people breakfast, we have a coffee bar and lunch and dinner brought in, and people just work later. It’s just a huge issue in terms of pages so it’s that much more copy to produce.

Is it fun?

Yeah. It’s fun to do. Of course there are people who find it a lot of work — but we bring in the coffee bars, we bring in a massage person, because it is so much work.

Is it hard in the weeks before and after the “Best of L.A.” to put out strong issues?

You’re right — the energy level is lower, and trying to get something together is a challenge. But you know, it depends. In 2001 we had to postpone an issue because of 9/11, but what we did then was a special 9/11 issue. People worked around the clock, doing that special issue. And then we still did the “Best of L.A.” issue a month later, so people were working very hard.

Who winds up pulling their hair out the most?

Probably our managing editor, with all the copy changes. If someone wants to change a line of copy, you have to go through all the different layers of proofing, while making sure the layout will still work. Or an ad comes in and changes the format of the layout, or someone is fact-checking and finds something that is just not right, and there’s a word you have to change.

But it’s our most successful issue. There are almost no returns on it. Its an issue that we also give a perfect binding on. It has to be sent to the printer a little earlier — it gets more of a book or magazine binding.

It must be expensive.

They’ve worked it out — it’s good for the bottom line because you get good advertising. It pulls in a lot of ads, actually.

Does that issue bring in more revenue than others?

Oh yeah.

Besides bringing in ads, does the issue increase circulation? Is that the goal?

Well, our circulation is as high as it can be; we could increase circulation, but we don’t want to print any more papers because of the cost. So in terms of readership, we’re already at our maximum. But one of the great things about the “Best of LA” issue is that people tend to hold on to it longer. That perfect binding makes it something you can keep around, and I think one of the reasons that the business side can sell to advertisers is that people look at the issue again and again, so they potentially see those ads again and again. And it does build loyalty, when readers can count on having a good issue like that.

We do a lot of special issues: we just did an art issue, and we put on a gallery opening, and it was really a lot of fun. Bands played. We took up most of the paper for it. Also, we just did a big music package called the “Class of ’05” and we had three different covers with three different bands, so you could collect all three, and we had a show at a local club. We try to get the readers involved in the paper.

What do you like most about working at an alt-weekly?

They’re a great kind of alternative school for journalism, because you get to do everything. I have a new assistant right now because my old assistant was promoted into editing. My new assistant was an intern here. There’ s a lot you can learn as an intern – you see how decisions are made, you see good writing.

At a daily, you’re given one topic to focus on — you’re in arts or food or local news, etc. At an alt-weekly, one week you can think about politics, the next week what new band is coming up. That’s why I came from Gourmet; I liked what I was doing there, but I wanted to be thinking about politics, and news, and art, and music — about everything — and to have that be my job.

Isaiah Thompson is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and was a 2005 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a freelance writer and educator.

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